Brexit, customs unions and borders

There have been some suggestions in Ireland, since June 23, to the effect that Ireland and the UK ought to be allowed to cut a special deal avoiding the need for customs borders within Ireland. In many cases these interventions seem to be ignorant of the basics of trade policy, and so a brief post on the distinction between free trade areas and customs unions might be useful at this point.

There are lots of explainers out there on the distinction: here, here, and here, beginning at p. 111 for example. Briefly, the main distinction between an FTA and a customs union is that in the latter, member states agree to a common external tariff, enforced along their common border with the rest of the world. Why would they do this, rather than retain the freedom to set their own tariffs vis-à-vis other countries? Because without a common external tariff, internal border controls will be necessary to avoid what is known as trade deflection.

Imagine that the UK and EU form a free trade area, but that the UK sets a 20% tariff on Japanese cars, while the EU sets a 10% tariff. Without border controls between the UK and EU, everyone would import Japanese cars into the UK via the EU — which would undermine the UK’s trade policy. Similarly, imagine that the UK does a trade deal with the US, and agrees to admit American beef duty free, while the EU retains a 15% tariff. Again, absent border controls between the UK and EU, everyone would import US beef into the EU via the UK, thus undermining EU trade policy.

So long as the UK and EU set different tariffs, therefore, there have to be border controls between them to ensure that Japanese cars and US beef are not being freely traded between them, alongside the UK and EU products that are entitled to be freely traded. And it is precisely because such border controls are costly that the EEC decided, all the way back in the 1950s, that it would set up a customs union rather than a mere free trade area.* The EU’s common external tariff is not a source of barriers: its whole point is to do away with barriers. That is why the provisions in the treaties regarding the customs union appear under the general heading “FREE MOVEMENT OF GOODS”. And so the fact that both Northern Ireland and the Republic were in the same customs union from 1973 onwards, and in the same Single Market from 1993 onwards, has been a great thing for Ireland.

As long as Ireland remains a member of the EU, it remains a part of its customs union. There is zero ambiguity on this point: the treaties state that

The Union shall comprise a customs union which shall cover all trade in goods and which shall involve the prohibition between Member States of customs duties on imports and exports and of all charges having equivalent effect, and the adoption of a common customs tariff in their relations with third countries.

No wiggle room here, as there is for example in some of the provisions regarding monetary union, and for good reason: the customs union has been the uncontested heart of the European project since the 1950s. As long as the North is outside the EU and its customs union, and the Republic is inside, there will have to be border controls between North and South to rule out trade diversion.

We all hope that these will be as unobtrusive as possible: if you like, that they will not be “hard”. IT can surely help. But customs controls of some sort there will have to be. As Eurointelligence says,

this is not an issue of political negotiation, but technical necessity. It is possible to soften the hardness of border by erecting customs posts for trucks alongside the motorway, before and after the border, and allow passenger cars free cross the border. But since the EU applies tariffs and taxes to goods entering the customs union, those goods have to be monitored at some point during the transit. You can think of the softest conceivable border as the one between Switzerland and Germany. Switzerland is in Schengen, but not in the customs union. Passenger cars pass relatively quickly, while there are sometime long lines of lorries on the motorway before the border. Call it what you will. But there will have to be customs controls post-Brexit.

Even if it were mysteriously possible for Ireland not to enforce the common external tariff and remain inside the EU, which it quite obviously isn’t: if we magically got the right to not check goods coming across the Border, what would be the result? Since Ireland would be de facto outside the customs union, all trade between Ireland and the EU26 would necessarily be subject to costly border and customs formalities, so as to rule out trade deflection. The basis for our prosperity, costless access to the Single Market, would be destroyed.

The return of the Border, however soft, is appalling. I understand that people wish that the British had not placed us in this position, but they have (the British, mark you, not the EU). And closing our eyes, sticking our fingers in our ears, and hoping that a fairy godmother will magic our problems away will not help.

It is logically coherent, if lunatic, to argue that Ireland should quit the EU and join the UK customs union (leaving the EU would on its own obviously not suffice to avoid a North-South border: our exit from the EU would have to be of the red, white, and blue variety). It is logically coherent to argue that Northern Ireland should remain within it, and I wish it would. That seems like something worth arguing for. But it is logically incoherent to argue that if we remain in the EU and its customs union, and the North leaves both, there can be some special deal that will avoid the need for a customs frontier on the island.

Those who want Ireland to leave the EU know that they are in a small minority, and many will not come out and argue for their position particularly strongly, for fear of being laughed out of court. The evidence that our prosperity is based on EU membership is overwhelming. But expect them, in the months and years ahead, to claim that the return of a customs frontier somehow shows that “the EU” has let Ireland down. The Brexit campaign shows that such dishonesty can pay: which is why it is so important that everyone understand that if the North leaves the EU and its customs union, and we remain inside it, there is nothing that the EU or anyone else can do to prevent the return of such a frontier.

  • There are other benefits to having a customs union: for example, the EU 27 is a far more formidable negotiator than the UK, allowing the EU to strike more favourable trade deals with third parties.

More on Brexit

Theresa May’s speech last week, while providing very little new information, provoked a lot of debate about the future relationship between the United (or perhaps more aptly the Disunited) Kingdom and the EU, and the potential consequences for Ireland. In particular there is much debate about the nature of the trade deal that might be achieved, and what Ireland should do. No doubt this debate will continue until the UK has left the EU and probably beyond.

However, what people are forgetting is that for there to be a trade agreement there first needs to be a successful outcome to the Article 50 negotiations. Some commentators do not distinguish the Article 50 negotiations, which are solely about the exit of the UK from the EU, from the trade negotiations, which in any case can’t be completed (at least in terms of signatures and giving legal effect to them) until the UK has actually left the EU.

The lack of attention on the Article 50 negotiations also seems to apply to the UK government, which other than indicating the likely time period in which Article 50 is going to be triggered, has not commented in detail about these. Theresa May’s speech last week is no exception in this. It would appear that the outcome of these negotiations is taken for granted, which might be due to a lack of understanding of what they entail.

A key aspect of the negotiations relates to the assets and liabilities shared between the Member States. The EU owns significant financial assets and of course also owns significant property assets. The 2015 consolidated EU accounts show that these assets were worth €154 billion. Of course the EU also has substantial liabilities, such as contractually committed expenditures but also pension liabilities. These amounted to €226billion in 2015. If one simply apportioned the net liabilities according to economic size the UK would owe the EU €12.6 billion.

Apportioning the UK share of the net liabilities amounting to €72 billion is going to be a tricky task, especially as the simple aggregate approach used here for illustrative purposes will have to be replaced by a much more detailed approach. Thus, instead of arguing about the shares for the two figures on assets and liabilities the negotiations will be about lots of figures.

Some commentators have also suggested alternative numbers, which are presumably based on different underlying data. For example the Financial Times has suggested that net payments from the UK to the EU could range between €20 billion and €60 billion. Apart from the potential for disagreements in attributing assets and liabilities to the UK, it should not be taken for granted that a Eurosceptic Westminster would approve payment of billions of pounds to ‘Brussels bureaucrats’. Failing to successfully complete the Article 50 negotiations would make trade negotiations difficult if not impossible.

What should Ireland do to mitigate the consequences of Brexit? Some people (e.g. Nigel Farage) are arguing that Ireland should also leave the EU. This is utter nonsense! Does anyone believe that Ireland could cut a good trade deal with a country that is over ten times larger in economic terms (GDP) and 14 times large in terms of population (the UK) rather than being part of a block that is almost 5 times larger than the UK? Brexiteers are trying to stir disagreement among EU members as a broken EU will be a lot easier to leave and doing deals with (small) individual countries will also be more advantageous for the UK.

The fact that Ireland trades extensively with non-EU countries, and particularly the US is not evidence that Ireland does not need the EU, but the opposite. Multinational companies that are responsible for the bulk of Irish trade are in Ireland because of EU membership. The EU has concluded trade deals with a range of countries and blocks and a small country like Ireland is not going to negotiate a better deal than the EU.

The latter point also applies to the UK. While Theresa May is now using the slogan of “making Britain truly global”, she and fellow Brexiteers have failed to show how the EU stopped the UK from being global. Indeed the evidence shows that Germany went global, i.e. increased its export share with non-EU countries accounting for EU expansion effects, from the 1980’s onwards. Using this definition the UK only started globalising in the early part of the last decade (see Morgenroth, 2017). Far from stopping countries going global the EU has actually facilitated globalisation for countries that wanted to pursue this goal (something that has been criticised by certain groups). Failure to do so is thus likely to be due to domestic policy failings.

So what should Ireland do? Firstly, it is important to note that when it comes to trade, the objectives of the EU are the same as those of Ireland – to keep trade as free as possible. Similarly, every EU Member State will want to protect its firms from unfair competition. This implies that the EU negotiating stance is likely to be reactive, responding to deviations by the UK from the status quo on trade barriers as well as other factors such as the adherence to State Aid Rules.

Secondly, while Ireland is particularly exposed to the negative impacts of Brexit, there are other EU Members, which will have shared concerns. For example as is now well known, the Irish agri-food sector is particularly exposed. Analysis shows that the Danish pork exports are as exposed Brexit as Irish beef exports to the UK (see Lawless and Morgenroth, 2016). Thus, there are natural allies which will have similar interests when it comes to the negotiations. The detailed analysis of which sectors, firms and regions are most exposed will help identify potential mitigating actions, for example by helping develop alternative markets.
Thirdly, EU Members will have the same objectives when it comes to attracting investment (both of foreign and UK firms) away from the UK, even if they will be competing against each other for this investment. Ireland is already more successful in attracting FDI than its size would suggest and it is likely that this will also apply to any investment diverted from the UK, at least in sectors where Ireland is already strong.

Finally, it is important to remember that it is not the EU that is turning its back on Ireland but that it is the UK that is doing so by leaving the EU – no amount of rhetoric changes this fact.

The UK House of Lords on Brexit and Ireland

This very welcome report by the UK House of Lords is available here, and it is good to see an official British document recognising that “Ireland now faces challenges that are not of its own making” — we might perhaps put things less politely on this side of the Irish Sea. Well done to all concerned.

I do have a couple of nitpicks.

  1. Beware of Britons suggesting bilateral negotiations. The report suggests that the UK and Ireland should negotiate bilaterally on UK-Irish issues. The problem is that UK strategy more generally appears to have been to try to open up divisions between member states by starting bilateral conversations with individual countries. The EU 27 have been very consistent in emphasising that we will be negotiating as a bloc, which is the only sensible way to proceed. In my view Ireland shouldn’t facilitate this long-standing British aim: not only do we share a common interest in getting the best possible deal for the EU27, and in preserving the cohesion of the EU; but as part of the EU 27, we will be in a stronger negotiating position vis à vis the UK than if we were to negotiate on our own. Ireland is already one of Michel Barnier’s top negotiating priorities, suggesting that our diplomats are succeeding in getting our message across to the rest of the EU. They should keep up the good work.
  2. Besides: how could Ireland and the UK agree on arrangements concerning the Border before we know what the eventual nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU will be?
  3. I am genuinely baffled by the following recommendation in the report:

    In the event that the UK leaves the customs union, a customs and trade arrangement between the two countries, subject to the agreement of the EU institutions and Member States.

    What does this mean? Ireland can’t be part of a customs union with both the EU and the UK, unless the UK chooses to stay in the EU customs union.  A bilateral trade deal between Ireland and the UK, not involving the rest of the EU, is impossible, both legally and as a practical matter, and it’s very important that everyone in Ireland understand this. If what is meant is that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU customs union (and, preferably, the Single Market also), then that is another matter — this would require customs controls between the two islands, but that would be far preferable from our point of view than customs controls along the Border. But I am not sure that that is what is meant, and so some clarification on this would be helpful.

But well done to the House of Lords for raising these issues, and for appearing to take them seriously, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of the British political establishment.

Independent Ireland in Comparative Perspective

I gave the economics lecture at the recent national conference at NUIG commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising. I had three main messages. First, the economic history of post-independence Ireland was not particularly unusual. Very often, things that were happening in Ireland were happening elsewhere as well. Second, for a long time we were hampered by an excessive dependence on a poorly performing UK economy. And third, EC membership in 1973, and the Single Market programme of the late 1980s and early 1990s, were absolutely crucial for us. Irish independence and EU membership have complemented each other, rather than being in conflict: each was required to give full effect to the other. Irish independence would not have worked as well for us as it did without the EU; and the EU would not have worked as well for us as it did without political independence.

There is a podcast available here. Since only audio is available, here is a link to my slides. I’m working on a paper version of the talk and will post a link to this as soon as possible.